Kathleen Jean Mary Ruska was born on 3 November 1920, at Minjerribah (Stradbroke Island), to Ted and Lucy Ruska. In 1933, at age 13, Ruska left school and became a domestic worker in Brisbane. From 1942 to 1944, she served in the Australian Women's Army Service. In 1942 Ruska married Bruce Raymond Walker, a member of the Gugingin (Logan) people, and a waterside worker. The couple separate around the time of the birth of their son, Dennis Walker, in 1946. Walker was forced to return to domestic service, and worked in the household of Sir Raphael and Lady Phyllis Cilento (see entry). In 1953, she gave birth to a second son, Vivian (later Kabul Oodgeroo Noonuccal), the child of the Cilentos’ son, Raphael junior.
In the early 1940s Walker had joined the Communist Party of Australia (CPA), Communist Party because it was the only political organization that eschewed the White Australia Policy, but left the Party when it required her to write speeches. It was through the CPA that Walker came to serious writing. In the late 1950s, Walker had joined the Brisbane arm of the Realist Writers’ Group, which had been established by CPA member and well-known novelist, Frank Hardy. Walker’s earliest poems appeared in the group’s magazine, Realist Writer (later The Realist), and through support of the Group, Walker’s first collection of poetry, We Are Going, was published by Jacaranda Press in 1964. It became an immediate commercial success, selling more than ten thousand copies and making Walker the best-selling Australian poet since C. J. Dennis. A second poetry collection, The Dawn is at Hand, was published by Jacaranda in 1966.
Walker’s literary work accompanied her political activism during the 1960s, including participation in the 1965 Freedom Ride and 1966 Gurindji Strike. The success of her poetry, expressing the importance of Aboriginal identity and protest, and her early role in the CPA, led to Walker’s leadership in the broad movement of Aboriginal socio-political self-determination. Walker was Queensland State Secretary of the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders (FCAATSI), Secretary of the Queensland State Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders (QCAATSI), and a member of the Queensland Aboriginal Advancement League. In 1965 Walker was part of the Federal Council delegation to Prime Minister Menzies which presented the case for amending Section 51 and repeal Section 127 of the Australian Constitution. The lobbying for reform, which would deliver to Aboriginal people full citizenship, continued with Prime Minister Harold Holt in 1966. It led to one of the most important constitutional referendums since Federation when, on 27 May 1967, 90% of the Australian Electorate supported the proposed amendments.
In 1968, Walker moved to Holland Park, and the following year unsuccessfully stood as the ALP candidate in the state electorate of Greenslopes. In 1969, after attending the World Council of Churches’ Consultation on Racism in London, Walker became convinced of the need for Aboriginal activists to work within their own political organisations rather than ones which were white-dominated. Walker left the QCAATSI and the FCAATSI for the newly formed Brisbane Aboriginal and Islanders Council and the National Tribal Council (NTC), of which she was briefly chairperson. Political in-fighting led Walker to withdraw from her formative political work and return to North Stradbroke Island, living on a property which she called Moongalba ('sitting-down place'). Walker took on a new role; that of an educator and cultural guardian and ambassador for her people, through the Noonuccal-Nughie Education and Cultural Centre at Moongalba. In 1970, Walker was appointed as a Member of the Order of the British Empire (Civil) for services to the community. Walker also won several literary awards, including the Mary Gilmore Medal (1970), the Jessie Litchfield Award (1975), and the Fellowship of Australian Writers' Award.
During the 1970s Walker built an international profile, conducting international lecture tours. In 1972 she was guest lecturer at the University of the South Pacific in Fiji; in 1974 the official Australian envoy at the International Writers' Conference in Malaysia; in 1975 the guest of the Papua New Guinea Government at the PNG Festival of Arts; and in 1976 delegate and Senior Advisor to the Second World Black Festival of the Arts held in Lagos, Nigeria. It was on the return trip from Nigeria that Walker’s British Airways flight was hijacked by terrorists campaigning for Palestinian liberation. During her three days in captivity, she composed two poems, 'Commonplace' and 'Yusuf (Hijacker)' on an airline sick bag. In 1978–1979 she won a Fulbright Scholarship and Myer Travel Grant to the United States of America and was Poet-in-Residence at Bloomsburg State College, Pennsylvania.
In the 1970s and 1980s Walker continued to write, publishing a number of books of Aboriginal legends aimed at young readers. In 1982, she was awarded the FAW Christopher Brennan award for her contribution to Australian literature. Walker briefly returned to direct political campaigns. In 1983 she ran in the Queensland state election for the Australian Democrats Party in the seat of Redlands. In 1984, Walker was part of the Australian cultural delegation which visited China; accumulating in Walker’s fourth and final poetry collection, Kath Walker in China (1988). In the 1987, anticipating protest against the forthcoming Australian Bicentenary celebrations (1988), Walker returned the M.B.E. to Queen Elizabeth II. At the same time, Kath Walker became known as Oodgeroo of the Noonuccal Tribe, Oodgeroo Noonuccal. The defiant act won her no friends in the conservative establishment, but it did not damage her standing in the cultural intelligentsia and academia. Oodgeroo was awarded honorary doctorates from Macquarie University (1988), Griffith University (1989), Monash University (1991) and Queensland University of Technology (1992). In 1990, as part of the formation of the Australian and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC), Oodgeroo was elected a member of the Southeast Queensland Regional Council.
See Oodgeroo Nunuckal on Scatterplot Matrix.
Oodgeroo Noonuccal (1920 – 1993). Australian Poetry Library. http://www.poetrylibrary.edu.au/poets/noonuccal-oodgeroo, accessed online 24 September 2014.
Oodgeroo Noonuccal (1920 – 1993). The Australian Woman’s Register. http://www.womenaustralia.info/biogs/IMP0082b.htm, accessed online 24 September 2014.
Oodgeroo Noonuccal. (2014, August 26). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 03:17, September 24, 2014, from http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Oodgeroo_Noonuccal&oldid=622829513
Oodgeroo Nunuckal (1920 –1993)
Poet, Social Theorist in Aboriginal and Environmental Rights, Democrat